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John Keats: Ode On A Grecian Urn

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4440 words Published: 15th Aug 2017

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Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness[im1],

Thou foster-child [im2]of silence and slow time,

Sylvan [im3]historian, who canst thus express

A flowery [im4]tale more sweetly[im5] than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts[im6] about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,[im7]

In Tempe [im8]or the dales of Arcady[im9][im10]?

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?[im11]

What pipes and timbrels? What [im12]wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard[im13]

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes[im14], play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone[im15]:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;[im16]

Bold[im17] Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade[im18], though thou [im19]hast not [im20]thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair![im21]

Ah, happy, happy [im22]boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied[im23],

For ever piping songs for ever new;[im24]

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,

For ever panting[im25], and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above[im26],

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d[im27][im28],

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel[im29],

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought[im30],

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form[im31], dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral![im32]

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty[im33],-that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


Keats felt inspired after reading two Benjamin Haydon articles, he was aware of Greek art and he had first hand exposure to the Elgin marbles.

  • Reinforced his belief that Greek art was idealistic and captured Greek virtues which form the basis of the poem.

He wrote the Odes when he left his job as assistant house surgeon in London, to devote himself entirely to the composition of poetry. Living with his friend Charles Brown, the 23-year-old was burdened with money problems and despaired when his brother George sought his financial assistance.

  • Relationships between the soul, eternity, nature, and art.

Keats was a second generation of Romantic poet, he took a polite subject – a study of a Greek pot – commonly spoken about by the Augustans and traditional odes and turned it into a loud, over-the-top celebration of music, sex, and youth.


Attempted to write sonnets but found the rhyme scheme did not match the message he was trying to convey, so he turned to the ode form.

  • But he found the Pindaric form inadequate for discussing philosophy.
    • So, he developed his own kind.
      • Further altered his ode style for ‘Nightingale’ and ‘Grecian Urn’ by adding a secondary voice- creating a dialogue.

Keats uses ekphrasis, (the poetic representation of a painting or sculpture in words) but differently from Theocritus’s ‘Idyll’, a classical poem describing a design on the side of a cup, Theocritus describes motion and underlying motives whilst Keats focuses solely on the external features of the cup but makes the reader think about the underlying motives.

Ten-line stanzas, beginning with an ABAB rhyme scheme (alternate rhyme) and ending with a Miltonic sestet (1st and 5th stanzas CDEDCE, 2nd stanza CDECED, and 3rd and 4th stanzas CDECDE, the Keatsian Structure). The same overall pattern is used in “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, and “Ode to a Nightingale” (though their sestet rhyme schemes vary), which unify the poems in structure as well as theme.

  • Creates the sense of a two-part thematic structure as well. The first four lines of each stanza roughly define the subject of the stanza, and the last six roughly explicate or develop it.

“Ode” in Greek, means “sung”. While ode-writers from antiquity adhered to rigid patterns of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, the form by Keats’s time had undergone enough transformation that it represented a manner rather than a set method for writing a certain type of lyric poetry.

  • Keats’s odes seek to find a “classical balance” between two extremes, and in the structure of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, classical literature and the asymmetry of Romantic poetry. The use of the ABAB structure in the beginning lines of each stanza represents a clear example of structure found in classical literature, and the remaining six lines appear to break free of the traditional poetic styles of Greek and Roman odes.
  • Keats’ metre reflects a conscious development in his poetic style. The poem contains only a single instance of medial inversion (the reversal of an iamb in the middle of a line), which was common in his earlier works.
  • Keats incorporates spondees in 37 of the 250 metrical feet.
  • Caesurae are never placed before the fourth syllable in a line.
  • The word choice represents a shift from Keats’ early reliance on Latinate polysyllabic words to shorter, Germanic words. In the second stanza, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which emphasizes words containing the letters “p”, “b”, and “v”, uses syzygy, the repetition of a consonantal sound.
  • The poem incorporates a complex reliance on assonance, which is found in very few English poems. Line 13 where the “e” of “sensual” connects with the “e” of “endear’d” and the “ea” of “ear” connects with the “ea” of “endear’d”.
  • A more complex form is found in line 11 the “ea” of “Heard” connecting to the “ea” of “unheard”, the “o” of “melodies” connecting to the “o” of “those” and the “u” of “but” connecting to the “u” of “unheard.”


  • Like many Keatsian odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” discusses art and art’s audience.
  • He relied on depictions of natural music in earlier poems, and works such as “Ode to a Nightingale” appeal to auditory sensations while ignoring the visual. Keats reverses this when describing an urn within “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to focus on representational art.
  • He previously used the image of an urn in “Ode on Indolence”, depicting one with three figures representing Love, Ambition and Poesy. Of these three, Love and Poesy are integrated into “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with an emphasis on how the urn, as a human artistic construct, is capable of relating to the idea of “Truth”.
  • The images of the urn described within the poem are intended as obvious depictions of common activities: an attempt at courtship, the making of music, and a religious rite. The figures are supposed to be beautiful, and the urn itself is supposed to be realistic. Although the poem does not include the subjective involvement of the narrator, the description of the urn within the poem implies a human observer that draws out these images.
  • The narrator interacts with the urn in a manner similar to how a critic would respond to the poem, which creates ambiguity in the poem’s final lines: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The lack of a definite voice of the urn causes the reader to question who is really speaking these words, to whom they are speaking, and what is meant by the words, which encourages the reader to interact with the poem in an interrogative manner like the narrator.
  • The urn, as a piece of art, requires an audience and is in an incomplete state on its own. This allows the urn to interact with humanity, to put forth a narrative, and allows for the imagination to operate. The images on the urn provoke the narrator to ask questions, and the silence of the urn reinforces the imagination’s ability to operate.
    • This interaction and use of the imagination is part of a greater tradition called ut pictura poesis – the contemplation of art by a poet – which serves as a meditation upon art itself. In this meditation, the narrator dwells on the aesthetic and mimetic features of art.
  • The figures on the urn within “Ode on a Grecian Urn” lack identities, but the first section ends with the narrator believing that if he knew the story, he would know their names. The second section of the poem, describing the piper and the lovers, meditates on the possibility that the role of art is not to describe specifics but universal characters, which falls under the term “Truth”. The three figures would represent how Love, Beauty, and Art are unified together in an idealised world where art represents the feelings of the audience. The audience is not supposed to question the events but instead to rejoice in the happy aspects of the scene in a manner that reverses the claims about art in “Ode to a Nightingale”. Similarly, the response of the narrator to the sacrifice is not compatible with the response of the narrator to the lovers.
  • Narrator contemplates where the boundaries of art lie and how much an artist can represent on an urn. The questions the narrator asks to reveal a yearning to understand the scene, but the urn is too limited to allow such answers.
  • Furthermore, the narrator is able to visualise more than what actually exists on the urn. This conclusion on art is both satisfying, in that it allows the audience to actually connect with the art, and alienating, as it does not provide the audience the benefit of instruction or narcissistic fulfilment.
  • Besides the contradictions between the various desires within the poem, there are other paradoxes that emerge as the narrator compares his world with that of the figures on the urn. In the opening line, he refers to the urn as a “bride of quietness”, which serves to contrast the urn with the structure of the ode, a type of poem originally intended to be sung. Another paradox arises when the narrator describes immortals on the side of an urn meant to carry the ashes of the dead.
  • In terms of the actual figures upon the urn, the image of the lovers depicts the relationship of passion and beauty with art. In “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on Melancholy”, Keats describes how beauty is temporary.
  • However, the figures of the urn are able to always enjoy their beauty and passion because of their artistic permanence. The urn’s description as a bride invokes a possibility of consummation, which is symbolic of the urn’s need for an audience.

[im1]Apostrophe: Silences the Urn and projects a voice, his own onto it allowing him to speak on its behalf.

[im2]Married to Mr. Quietness but they have never consummated their marriage despite “ravished” imagery. Also, adopted by silence and time but these were not the originally circumstances, the true parent is the silent painter and ceremonial use. After the decline on Greece the pot continued to live on.

[im3]Means ‘Forest’, the Urn is a historian of people of the woods.

[im4]As well as the bee imagery ‘flowery’ is a pun as a flowery tale is very complicated, also an urn had a flowery or leafy border.

[im5]Flower and sweetly is metaphor for bees and nature, he believes that the Urn can tell a better story, with nature like unlike poetry, both are true beauty and show nature.

[im6]Exist in one place- but has obvious connections to the supernatural and the dead characters.

[im7]In ancient Greece Gods were represented as normal people so it would be hard to tell the difference, Gods also liked to be in company with people.

In a way, the poem’s rigid rhyme and meter is very understated bringing parallels to God. Effortless on the surface highly intricate underneath you wouldn’t know what you were looking for unless you sough it out..

[im8]The Vale of Tempe was home for a time to Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, and it was here that he chased Eurydice, wife of Orpheus, who, in her flight, was bitten by a serpent and died. In the thirteenth century AD a church dedicated to Aghia (Saint) Paraskevi was erected in the valley.

[im9]“Tempe” and “Arcady” are allusions to two regions of Ancient Greece known for being particularly lush and green. They become stock symbols in English poetry for places where people lived in the forest.

[im10]Vision of pastoralism in nature.

[im11]USE of ekphrasis, the poetic representation of a painting or sculpture in words.

[im12]Repetition of questions (anaphora) that the speaker cannot comprehend draws parallels to the interaction between Job and God. Something that is godly like nature or beautiful art is incomprehensible for man we can do our best to try to understand it only.

[im13]ASSONANCE: “ea” of “Heard” connecting to the “ea” of “unheard”, the “o” of “melodies” connecting to the “o” of “those” and the “u” of “but” connecting to the “u” of “unheard.”

[im14]Unlike the wild party music in the chase in stanza 1 the soft pipes give a soothed atmosphere

[im15]Paradox: the sweetest melodies are the ones that you do not hear. Keats is tricking the audience: he treats the people as if they are real people in real events living on the Urn just in frozen time

The Urns beauty allows him to think of a song in his head that the man is playing and it’s more beautiful than anything that he has ever heard before.

  • Aka he prefers the fantasy world to the real one.

[im16]Edenic, it shall always be spring here with the man under the tree always playing his sweet music for his spirit.

[im17]Another apostrophe

[im18]No surprise that he is so obsessed with immortality, he had just contracted TB..

[im19]Greece had connections to higher society and was rebellious, he uses anachronistic diction to make this connection with the constant repetition of thou- it’s made to sound fancy.

[im20]Keats says not to grieve but continues to use negative phrasing even in these lines: “do not grieve,” “cannot fade,” and “”hast not thy bliss.” Keats may have made a mistake, or there may be a reason for this negative undertone…

[im21]SYZYG: Repetition of the consonant sound “b” “v” “p” in particular, breaking his reliance on Latinate polysyllabic words to shorter, Germanic words.

[im22]Potentially trying to convince himself that he is happy allegorically he is actually happy.

[im23]Pronounced un-wear-i-ed to preserve the iambic pentameter. Potentially comparing himself to the happy melodist who too draws out notes/syllables.

[im24]Stuck in the same time forever its always new nothing shall ever grow old.

[im25]Repetition shows the eternal nature of the urn which is observed here. Panting from being chased in S1 as well as sexual connotations. Alternatively, with the rhythm pulsating and the repetition of speech he is growing sexually excited himself.

[im26]Could be the speaker standing above the urn or it could suggest that the lovers are better of above ‘human passion’ and they are actually all Gods, preserved and beautiful- living on forever as long as they are remembered.

[im27]If it is the speaker standing high above then it must be his heart that is sorrow filled, looking at those in love sadden him. Uses metonym to connect them.

  • Words that give meaning to another i.e. Westminster = House of Parliament, Downing Street = Prime Minister.

[im28]Too much of something good.

[im29]Oxymoron peaceful fortress

[im30]Overcomplicated- too good for us Godly.

[im31]Apostrophe and personification  is cyclical like looking around the urn in a circle.

[im32]The poet compares the experience of looking at the urn to thinking about eternity, an idea so lofty and hard to understand that trying to think about it is like not thinking at all.

[im33]Simple chiasmus acts as synecdoche for the poem.


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